As we watch children grow, we wonder. How did one child turn out to be such a strong and caring person given she had such a troubled family background? How did another child turn out so badly when he had such good and faithful parents?
It might seem like quite a mystery!
For a long time, people have asked the question: What is the fundamental nature of children? Several perspectives have historically been advanced. And the answers matter a lot!
Perspective 1) Children are basically bad.
John Calvin, the Christian reformer taught that children’s “whole nature is a certain seed of Sin, therefore it cannot but be hateful and abominable to God.”
Susanna Wesley, mother of famed John Wesley, taught that evil easily takes control so that, whenever a child is corrected, it must be conquered. The irony is that John Wesley grew up preaching the gospel of joy but could never feel it himself.
Sigmund Freud had a similarly bleak assessment of human nature. “I have found little that is good about human beings. In my experience most of them are trash.” His daughter Anna taught that children are dominated by sexual and aggressive impulses. She described a parent’s task: “to turn their children from unrestrained, greedy and cruel little savages into well-behaved, socially adapted, civilized beings.
Even recent parent advisors have offered bleak assessments of children’s nature. John Rosemond has taught, “Give your children regular and realistic doses of Vitamin N (for No!) When you do, and they fall to the floor screaming, pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Remember that sufficient exposure to frustration not only prepares a child for the reality of adulthood, but gradually helps the child develop a tolerance for frustration. . . . Stop thinking that your first obligation is to make and keep them happy, because it isn’t” (Rosemond, 1989, p.190). According to Rosemond, frustration is good for children.
Perspective 2) Children are clay.
Aristotle, and later John Locke, taught that “the soul of a child is like a clean slate on which nothing is written” (Beekman, p.20) .
John B. Watson, American psychologist and father of behaviorism, taught that he could take a dozen healthy infants and, by controlling the rewards and punishments they experienced, turn any one of them into any kind of person he wanted—from a successful businessman, doctor, or lawyer to a beggar or thief.
Watson believed that caregivers should regulate every part of a child’s experience in order to form them into the kind of person they wanted. Mother’s love was dangerous because it was so carelessly given. This horrified him. “It is a serious question in my mind whether there should be individual homes for children—or even whether children should know their own parents.”
Perspective 3) Children are fundamentally good.
Rousseau believed that “all things are good as they come out of the hands of the Creator, but everything degenerates in the hands of man” (Beekman, p.42, 44) While he believed that children were fundamentally good, he also found them annoying. He sent his own five children to the orphanage.
Some developmentalists have observed in wonder the remarkable way that children learn and grow. Maslow considered that children have everything desirable about human nature—except those few things that come though experience—such as wisdom.
Sandra Scarr, a revered developmentalist encouraged parents to provide a supportive environment and allow them to “become themselves” (Scarr, 1992, p.15).
Many developmentalists recommend that we respond graciously to children’s needs. “A baby does not cry for nothing; he cries because he is uncomfortable. It is up to us to find out why and fix it. . . . You will never spoil a baby by attending to his needs. . . . A baby who gets plenty of this kind of attention will not cry for more. It is the baby who never has enough who is always crying for more. He is the spoiled baby” (Beekman, 179).
The danger of our own bias
How can we make sense of these contradictory views? Where is the truth? The answer is complicated.
Children are, in part, subject to self-centeredness and impulsiveness, just as adults are. You might say that “the natural child is an enemy to [civilization]” (See Mosiah 3:19). Children look after their own needs even when mom is exhausted and other children or tasks need attention. Fallenness has left an ugly stain on even the youngest of us; we take care of ourselves even when it causes others to suffer.
Children are to some extent, clay. We are formed by experience—both good and bad. If we are rewarded by bad behavior, we are more likely to continue those bad behaviors into adulthood. If we are formed by the good example and teaching of virtues, chances increase that those virtues will be woven into our nature.
Children are also good. They come to this world with a fundamental empathy that can grow into compassion and kindness.
As parents, our view of our children can be biased by our own history and perspective.
We might label some behaviors as “bad” rather than trying to understand the cause of the behavior. For example, we may see children as stingy or stubborn when they are merely frustrated or tired. Such a bias toward badness draws us away from compassion and being able to effectively parent.
If we see children as clay, we underappreciate their inherent individuality and talents. We impose too much of ourselves on them.
If we see children as fundamentally good, we may be very encouraging. But we may also leave too much to nature and fail to mentor and be with them as much as they need.
Helping children become what God intends
As parents, God has entrusted His beloved sons and daughters to us to care for and raise. Our desire should be to help our children become what God wants them to be. In the process of helping them become what He intends, we become what we should be. But only if we are humble. And only if we invest fully in the process.
Here are two things we can keep in mind:
1. Pay attention to the needs of your child. While it is popular to say that children come without a manual, I believe that they themselves are the manual. Notice what each child needs and what they enjoy. Notice the type of teaching and correction they productively respond to. When they are frustrated or upset, try to understand the root cause and apply compassion.
2. Notice any bias that may have crept into your perspective of your child. Have you labeled or dismissed behavior as merely “bad” without trying to understand it? Do you attempt to impose your own views of who and what your children should be without allowing for their own individuality, interests or aspirations? Do you facilitate the growth of your children and live up to your role in teaching and modeling virtues? Have you considered what types of behavior gets rewarded within your family?
I invite you to consider what healthy and unhealthy assumptions you bring to your parenting from your early life experience. I challenge you to consider each of your children and how to best cultivate the good while sidelining the bad in him or her. I invite you to grow as a parent through both serious study and earnest prayer.
Jesus held up children as a model for us.
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and [that] he were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:1-6, emphasis added)
Being an effective parent is vital for our development and essential to launch our children on joyous paths.
There are a few great parenting books on the market. There are lots of mediocre or poor ones. My favorite parenting books that combine good sense with good psychology are:
Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships by Goddard
Between Parent and Child by Haim Ginott [I helped revise this classic book.]
Soft-Spoken Parent: 55 Strategies for Preventing Contention with Your Children by Goddard
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber & Mazlish
Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child by Gottman
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her helpful additions to this article.